Long Reads

Autophagy #1: Biographic Reflections

Contextualizing my thoughts and self: a long short story on how I've become de-churched.

This post series is an exercise of autophagy and regurgitation (Which is why I created this blog). I am writing to get some things clear to myself, to identify and own my contradictions, while also offering, to you, dear reader, the chance to participate. Everything here is a bit of a mess, and I hope to make it a clear mess, and, hopefully, communicate the sense I find in it. If you are one of my friends who have been all too confused about what exactly I think or believe about this or that, I hope this will bring clarification. As I regurgitate where you stand, I hope you will be moved to do so, too.

Today my ideal is to be a conscious child, who can make-believe and play the games of adulthood, while laughing at anyone who takes them too seriously. Some of these games are religion, government, money, authority, etc. But as the Christ, and the Buddha, and Krishna, who join humanity from above the human self-complications, I do not want to be a nihilistic cynic, self-destructive and bored, but rather an actual child, bursting with life and creativity, able, above all, to suffer, especially at the sight of those who harm themselves because they believe too much in the wrong things, such as possessions, rules, or group-identity.

This text is divided in parts. My goal is to discuss ideas, but I have lost my belief in disembodied ideas that can be argued outside of human reality. Therefore, the first part deals with important transitions in my life, and the process through which I became de-churched. Honesty demands that I be clear regarding how my personal history is part of shaping my thoughts. Love demands that I be vulnerable. I am not a floating brain in a vacuum, alone with my thoughts for eternity, therefore, I don’t believe in pure rationality or abstract ideas detached from a context. I am not a computer, and neither are you. My ideas surged within my contexts, and both are needed to make sense of each other. I hope this leads you to empathize and to reflect on your own history, asking how your ideas relate to the story you tell yourself about yourself. I hope you will see how both affect each other.

The next posts, to come, will discuss my agnostic convictions, my Christianity, my existentialism, and how these shape my political stances.

Part 1 – Biographic reflections

I was raised by a very young single mother, after an ugly divorce, in the inner city of São Paulo, Brazil. I grew up in a Pentecostal church; there we firmly believed and preached the supernatural, and in our Sunday schools we read and studied the biblical text very seriously. We firmly believed the bible is the Word of God and everything it says is true. From that young age I was very passionate of apologetics – the defense of the faith – and I went through a fair share of debates, with friends and strangers, defending the truth of Scriptures. I would read and listen to lectures on the historical truth of the bible, rebuttals to neo-atheism, defense of Intelligent Design, and so on.

Coming to North America at the age of 17, I found the average Christians I met here to be rather ignorant of the bible. In bible-study discussions, I would mention stories, characters and verses from the New and Old Testament, showing that I understand the internal references in the canon, instead of commenting  things like “when I read this text I feel this way”. Adults around me would answer “Oh, Lucas, you know so much! Did you go to bible school?”. I was disappointed at the comfortable Christianity I saw around me. While in the violence and poverty of Brazil Christians can quote scriptures as a lawyer quotes the Law, the Christians I met here seemed to meet on Sundays for feel good sessions. My pious young brain screamed silently, in judgement: “How are you calling yourselves Christians if you don’t even know the bible?” “How can you say you understand the Gospels if you never read Isaiah, or Hebrews, if you never read Deuteronomy?” – I was an anguished idealist kid. I was also rather lonely, and depressed, living in a new, cold country, where I couldn’t carry a conversation in English without someone correcting my pronunciation (or pretending to understand when they didn’t), where I didn’t feel smart because I did not have the vocabulary to express myself, and where I did not speak the actual local language (French), so it was hard to make friends outside a few limited circles. All my friends were thousands of kilometres south. I spent a lot of my time on the internet, unaware of my own loneliness and depression, projecting them in existential and theological questions: Did God care? Was He going to help me? Would I find a girlfriend? Was it my choice to come here, or was it destiny? It pained me to come to a place where I know I will not have the same chances at financial and social success as people who grew up here: as much as I am white-skinned and won’t suffer the prejudice other immigrants suffer, my family name still sounds strange, and I will never get all the cultural references, the unspoken social rules, etc. I don’t like hockey nor baseball. I will always be an outsider discovering the local culture. I write all of this because, at the time, I was rather unaware (or in denial?) of all this anguish and bitterness: I only saw the cosmic dilemmas, disguised in my sense of rationality. My brain felt lonely, but couldn’t distinguish loneliness from friends and loneliness from God/Life/Universe/Cosmos. All I could see was my mind, my rationality, God, and the big questions. I was blind to my own emotions and social context, even though I suffered them deeply. Oblivious of myself. I find it important to underline all these circumstances today to remember that maybe I was the one being bitter and judgemental, that maybe I am an emotional and social animal who suffers with isolation. That is ok. It is ok to be human. I am human, and I tried to hide my flesh-and-feelings humanity by only thinking of God.

I was 17 and I had no idea how severely sexually repressed I was. On one hand I wasn’t too confident, and language barriers made me unable to communicate and sound smart, which is half of my charm, so I was hopeless with girls. On the other hand, I needed the assurance that my relationship with God was good, and it depended on me to show that I truly know and love him by living a chaste life, which meant staying off of pornography and masturbation, of finding a good Christian girl, dating her, receiving her father’s blessing, and only then, after marriage, having sex. On one way I repressed sexual thoughts and feelings, on the other hand I idealized sex as a mystical experience enclosed in sacred matrimony. This paradox of repression and idealization led to a cycle of pornography, guilt, intense emotional prayers for forgiveness, and confession to my Christian brothers. They were sympathetic, because every single Christian young man who followed the traditional ideas about sexuality had a pornography problem, and we were encouraged to confess to each other, whether or not we had real intimacy as friends outside church walls. These constant failures to live up the ideals of chastity led to constant questions regarding my salvation: how legitimate was my repentance? Would God ever deliver me? Isn’t my lack of self-control a lack of fruit, evidence against my salvation? Again, projecting that loneliness into a disguise of rationality, I became obsessed with the dilemma of determinism and freewill: Calvinism versus Arminianism. I found assurance and belonging watching sermons by Pr. Paul Washer (whom I still respect above most evangelical pastors), who cries against the comfortable middle class Christianity in North America, where people call themselves Christian without any effort or knowledge derived from their Christianity, living in a bubble of social seclusion and self-affirmation, denying the demands and challenges of the biblical text. Pr. Washer and others became symbols of a movement of Neo-Calvinists, the Young, Restless and Reformed, recovering a form of puritanism in modern times. Many of these new reformed Christians, including me, spent much of their time calling out against other forms of Christianity that did not seem smart or invested enough to understand the “Doctrines of Grace”. The paradigm of Total Depravity and Irresistible Grace brought my internal conflicts with sexuality to a cosmic scale: Instead of dealing with my view of women, relationships, and institutions, I projected that anguish into wanting to fix the church-world around me and find people who took it all as intensely as I did, to experience Christianity in its true form.

By God’s grace I met incredible friends who became brothers to me through great experiences. We would meet every Saturday, study the bible, cook and share a meal together, and bring sandwiches to homeless people around the city while hoping to have a chance to talk to them about their need of salvation. We shared bread and wine, glad of our fellowship away from the hypocrisy of the institutional churches we belonged to, obeying Jesus and organizing ourselves instead of waiting until a church set up a schedule with a program for us to do it. This sort of anti-institution Christian community, a religious anarchy, enabled me as a person, taking me out of depression and loneliness. I was happier, and nicer. It also eased my brain to continue to consider the cosmic questions. Working on my ideas led to changes in my self and my environment, and changes on my self and my environment led to changes in my ideas. Feeling less lonely, I felt less bitter, less judgmental.

The answers I had – being the rebel Reformed Christian who wanted to challenge the religious status quo – were working out for me, even though my discontentment and doubts were fermenting as I studied psychology, read philosophy books, and learned more of the history of my own evangelical beliefs. Yet again, pure rationality wasn’t enough to break through as long as it all, at the end of the day, worked out for me. I was dating and in love with a good Christian girl, and we were already planning our next two or three years until marriage (every church discussion about relationships or sexuality was a talk about marriage, so there was no way to not talk about it). I only allowed myself to take my doubts seriously once my answers failed me. Once we broke up, the ideals of commitment and self-giving, of forgiveness and understanding, of community support, of promise-keeping, and so many things I deemed essential to the Christian life, crashed through as insufficient, because at the end of the day, my church friends and surrounding thought we didn’t owe anything to each other until we were actually married. I felt angry at God: I felt betrayed, lied to. I belonged to a community that would not welcome a relationship unless it aimed at marriage, but that at the same time, gave no value to the relationship until the wedding. A community that preached that once married, we would need to stay faithful and together regardless of any differences. It seemed to me, in between the lines of all the talks I had with church friends, that the church’s stance on marriage was: If you don’t have a ring and if you haven’t signed the contract, you are not allowed to have sex, but you are free to break each other’s heart and you don’t need to keep promises, but if you do get that ring, and you do sign the contract, you can have sex, but then you have to follow your promises regardless of abuse or unhappiness. Everything else was idealized talk to justify it. At the core, it seemed like senseless legalism, which people needed constant affirmation and self-reminding in order to continue believing in it.

It was then that all the doubts and discontentment that had been fermenting on the level of intellectual ideas broke through: Maybe modern conservative notions of marriage are, indeed, remnants of old patriarchal structures that treated women like property. Maybe the reason why no man I know keeps the chastity ideals is because these ideals simply do not, and will never, work in our social context (since we can’t arrange a marriage when we’re 13, and we try to treat women like equals). Maybe the reason we need constant preaching to ourselves to keep believing this works is precisely because it doesn’t. These questions shifted from pure intellectual curiosity to serious questioning, and I felt myself distancing from my church communities. Still, the Christian brothers and sisters I made outside church walls, in that religious anarchy, remained close for much longer (one of which is Gabe, co-author in this blog, still one of my best friends). Other friends who remained close regardless were the ones who knew all sides of me: the ones who knew me in church, at work, and in school, both as a Christian and as Lucas.

In the midst of all of this, oblivious to myself, I pondered: Who exactly is Lucas? Who is God? Who was Jesus? What do I really believe? If the bible is out of context when we speak of marriage, is there anything else in it worth questioning? Isn’t this just my sinful heart looking for the answers it wants to hear?

I read, I studied, I thought, I struggled. I met my pastors in private to discuss my ideas on the bible. I stayed within church, I joined “church plants” in the hopes that by doing more, by diving deeper, that believing harder, I would find answers to my doubts. Making drastic decisions because of a breakup is unwise, so I let myself get over the heartbreak while remaining active in church. I wanted to calm down and think things through, investigate and study the answers to my questions, and not simply turn away from everything in late teenager angst. At the same time, I slowly opened myself beyond church. I felt more and more distant from the forced-intimacy friends from church, who would openly proclaim and sing how we are a family while barely knowing me, and I gradually became closer to the actual friends I made outside of church who understood my existential questions. I was reading Nietzsche, Sartre, Buddhist books, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, learning some actual philosophies and theories behind feminism, gender, etc… I studied marriage as a sacrament and also as a tool of patriarchal oppression. I studied the bible as Word of God and also as a piece of ancient literature. …As my questions became louder and the easy answers insufficient, my convictions slowly crumbled. Black and white became increasingly grey. I was not sure what to believe, yet, I trusted God. I never doubted the existence of the All-Mighty, only what exactly God is: The universe? Life itself? A Super-Being out there? Or Being itself? Is God personal? Is God good? Does God care? The silence I received as an answer was too loud to endure.

In the dark, I prayed: “God, I am a sinner. Have mercy on me. Show me the way. Whatever you are, a projection of my mind or the real Mystery of Being, if you are true, if there is a true path, if there are answers, show them to me. I believe you can answer my questions, so I will not be afraid to ask them. God, I need to see things for myself, and I cannot continue denying myself because someone told me what someone told someone who told someone who told someone who said they understood this or that from a book. If you are God, if you are alive, and if you love me, have mercy on me. I will follow your rule of Love, because in it I see the Divine, but I am not sure of any other rule. Miserere Mei”.

Two of my best friends introduced me to psychedelics. Experiencing it helped me identify my internalized anguish, my social anxiety, my presumptions, my arrogance, and my need of healing, of discovery, of being the child God made me. Life brought me very close friends who shared the same religious past as I did, and who understood the quest I found myself in. It was no longer merely about “answers”: the idea of a sentence that solves everything is ridiculous. It was about reconciliation, peace with oneself and with the All. It still is. In that time I began to go out, I got drunk with friends, we played music at 5am, we danced. I began writing poetry and allowing myself to feel. I learned to voice my emotions, to communicate better. I discovered sides and faces of myself that I would never have if I kept repressing myself due to rules and theologies I was not sure about. Psychedelics helped me identify my lack of peace regarding sexuality, something I needed to heal. I realized all the girls I was close with were from church, and they had the same repressed and perverted views of sexuality that I grew up with. I needed to know people who thought differently, to speak with girls who weren’t thinking of marriage in the first date. I allowed myself to flow with the moment, to not care. Eventually, at the right moment, I experienced the mystical act of uncovering one’s body and discovering another’s nakedness, embracing it. I learned to embrace the momentary, because all of life is momentary. I learned that maybe the need of promises comes from insecurity… and that is ok, too. At later times, I also experienced what it is like to be with someone as less-than-person, as simply a body, as an object of desire, or to fill one’s loneliness. Some of the grey turned a bit blacker, some a bit whiter. I learned to talk to women as friends and not as strange other-world mysterious beings. I learned to understand consent, to communicate my emotions, to recognize the pretense of masculine rationality and to allow myself to befriend my body. I allowed the deconstruction of everything I believed in, while praying, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, and after everything, I met only Love. It was during that period of one and a half years that I started this blog and wrote my first post.

…Then I almost died.

I had a really bad case of pneumonia where I discovered that I have an immune deficiency. My body basically has no natural working antibodies, and therefore it is unable to fight infections. At that time, I still attended church, I still lived with church roommates, and I shared about my health situation on social media. The people who visited me in the hospital and cared about how I felt were my family and those friends who would not be welcome at church: my hippie friends, the de-churched, even close friends I originally met on Tinder. My church friends who sang of how we were a “family of servants in a mission, sharing life together” never contacted me. My roommates were very helpful and cared about how my health was going, but were also very interested in explaining to me what they thought the bible says about marriage, whenever they had a chance. My pastors texted me, not to ask about my health, but whether or not I felt convicted for sleeping with someone without signing a marriage contract before. It was sad, but at the moment I simply felt at peace about it. I knew they didn’t understand, but I wish they would have shown love in any other way than just trying to correct my theology (or make it fit their dogmas).  My experiences and formal learning together made me appreciate the bible more than ever before. My health did not worry me; I had an inexplicable sense of peace, I knew I would live. Still, during the days I spent in the hospital, I questioned, closely than ever, life, death, and existence. I felt the intoxicating joy of being alive, the immense gratitude for all the efforts of humans who lived before me which keep me alive today, and the ineffable anguish of knowing that with my old conservative theology, which loves to talk about “nature”, one could argue it is“God’s will” that I should be dead. After all, I was born without a natural working immune system, and I survive by artificial means. I wrote many poems in the days I was interned. Since then I take an injection of antibodies every month. Every month I decide to live the next, every month I stop and ask myself, do I want to continue on living?

Understanding what it takes for me to live another month helped me comprehend that I do not exist simply in my inner world, and not only in the cosmic divine world of absolutes, but also in the social world: an intricate web of every human being that ever lived, of which I am part of. I have antibodies to continue living because there are humans who donate blood. I am not homeless or dead because the left-leaning government of Quebec believes I deserve medical care even if I cannot personally pay for it. I am grateful, and indebted. Learning critical social and historical readings of the bible in my theology courses helped me understand the political tones of Jesus’ message in his time, the political meaning of the word “neighbor”, and the meaning of love as a bridge across the walls of power. Feeling the weight of society in my skin, I understood how much Jesus’ message matters, how critically relevant it still is, and how little it has to do with penal substitutionary atonement.

Today I am living with my girlfriend, who is agnostic, but understands me and my Christianity. She has challenged me to inform myself on politics and economy, on oppression, on my privileges, and much of the social aspect of living that I neglected most of my life. I grow daily understanding, with her, what it is to love. On the other hand, life has brought distance, again, between me and some of my best friends: be it physical distance or just busy-ness. I am taking a break from theology classes as I take my time to recover from the still-lingering weakness of immune deficiency and to take care of my mental health. I am finally being able to digest the last six years of my life and write all these things down, and I hope I have brought you to reflect. I am not afraid that strangers will come across this and know these personal things about me: I do not belong to myself, I do not live for myself, and I hope all of this will be helpful to someone. If you know I mentioned you here, or even if I didn’t, but you relate anyways, don’t be afraid to reach out to me.

On the next post, I hope to explain what I mean by “My Christianity”.

Picture: The Incredulity of St. Thomas, Caravaggio

 

1 comment on “Autophagy #1: Biographic Reflections

  1. Pingback: Autophagy #4: Politics and the Kingdom of God – Theology à-Côté

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